Talking Point with Peter Hicks: Napoleon, the bust of his son, the store ship captain, and his celebrated letters

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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In May 1817, three store ships bringing supplies to the island of St Helena anchored off Jamestown. First to arrive on circa 22 May was Ocean (under Captain Johnson), then came Experiment (commanded by Captain Dacre) and finally Baring (whose skipper was Captain Lamb). Owing to the slowness of the Jamestown port facilities, it was predicted that unloading would take several weeks (indeed months). As a result, Captains Johnson, Dacre and Lamb joined island society for the time of their anchorage. The standout feature of this relatively mundane occurrence was the arrival of a bust of Napoleon’s son, the King of Rome.

Talking Point with Peter Hicks: Napoleon, the bust of his son, the store ship captain, and his celebrated letters

The episode was recounted by Barry O’Meara from memory since he had displaced his notes for this period. A certain cannoneer in Captain Lamb’s ship named Radowitz, he narrates, had had a bust of Napoleon’s son made in Livorno using his own money. Radowitz’s aim was to deliver the work to Napoleon (hopefully in return for something). In a strange combination of circumstances, Radowitz fell ill (becoming delirious) and Lamb confessed to the police chief on the island that the cannoneer had a bust for Napoleon. The police chief, Thomas Reade, is said to have suggested that the captain should break the bust into pieces and throw it in the sea. Though Reade later denied it, O’Meara was convinced that Reade had actually proposed the destruction. Be that as it may, the bust was delivered to Plantation House by Reade. Hudson Lowe detained the bust for a while, presumably wondering whether it contained hidden messages. Deciding that as it was solid it probably couldn’t, the governor wrote to Bertrand asking if Napoleon wanted it. Naturally, Bertrand said yes, and the bust was delivered. Depending on whose memoirs you believe, either Gourgaud or Bertrand unpacked it, and Napoleon wandered over to Bertrand’s cottage to have a look. Napoleon was deeply moved.

However, the chance of attacking the maladroit governor and police chief for the non-delivery (and threatened destruction) of a father’s precious memento was not to be missed. Even more so because on 29 June, the skipper of Ocean, Captain Johnson, was received by a Napoleon sitting on the steps on the veranda at Longwood. After a long conversation with the Emperor, Johnson declared that he would write to the British newspapers telling the disgraceful story of the bust and the way it finally made its way to Napoleon. As O’Meara put it in his letter to his acquaintance at the Admiralty, John Finlaison, dated 18 August 1817: Johnson “on his return to town, had declared to several persons that he had seen Bonaparte and that he had made him acquainted with all the circumstances relative to the proposed destruction of the bust and that he had also told him he had written an account of the whole to London for the purposes of being inserted in the newspapers.”[1] Only two and half weeks later, in July, Bertrand noted in his diary that “The Emperor dictated the first Letter by a storeship captain“.[2]

So far so good. In October 1818, a 150-page pamphlet comprising ten letters was published in English entitled Letters from the island of St Helena exposing the unnecessary severity exercised towards Napoleon: with an appendix of important official documents.[3] The publication appeared a month or so after the arrival in Plymouth on 10 September of Barry O’Meara, direct from Longwood, recently expelled from the island. A French translation was to appear in under the title Lettres écrites par un officier anglais in 1822. This however is not the original French but a translation of the earlier English edition[4]. Some of the remarkable features of the text are anecdotes recounted to O’Meara and published by him in 1822. The same anecdotes appear published by Las Cases in the Mémorial in 1823.[5]

Unlike the Letters from the Cape and the “Book IX” of Napoleon’s memoirs, on Waterloo, which were both published bilingually, this is the only example of a text by Napoleon for which the original exists only in English. And the English text is very convincing, seemingly professionally done. Was it a translation? If it was, maybe O’Meara occupied himself with it on the two-month or so journey home?

The ten letters “exposing the unnecessary severity” are written as if by the captain of a store ship. They are all dated from “Jamestown bay”. The first letters recount the story of the bust in detail and the latter ones report anecdotes showing Napoleon’s magnanimity towards British prisoners of war in France during the years of power. It is quite odd that for the whole of O’Meara’s narrative, these are the only days for which the Irish surgeon lost his notes – did they end up in the 1818 book? Furthermore, that Captain Johnson was so indignant about the treatment of Napoleon that he was willing to write to the British papers is also surprising. Maybe what we have in these letters is a three-handed text, partly inspired by Johnson, dictated by Napoleon and transmitted (and partly written?) by O’Meara. The text would not appear to have made many waves however. Unlike Hook’s Facts Illustrative, a text in which Hudson Lowe and Sir Thomas Reade participated, it is not mentioned by Hudson Lowe’s ADC, Gideon Gorrequer, as ever having reached Longwood.

Peter Hicks, June 2021 (first published in French in July 2020)

Peter Hicks is a historian and International Affairs Manager at the Fondation Napoléon.

For more on the clandestine letters from St Helena see Pierre Branda’s book Écrits clandestins de Sainte-Hélène, by Napoleon (Clandestine writings from St Helena) (Perrin 2021)


[1] Benhamou, Inside Longwood, O’Meara to Finlaison, 18 August 1817, p. 129.

[2] Bertrand, Mémoires, vol. 1, 17 July 1817, p. 247.

[3] Notice of the piece (authorship attributed to Las Cases) was published in November regarding October publications in the Monthly Review 1818. It includes a French version of Napoleon’s famous letter to Las Cases, written in December 1816, see the article here.

[4] Several mistakes in the French exist, one of which caused by a typographical error in the English version, which clearly show that the French is a product of the English original.

[5] The anecdote of the sailor at Boulogne and his small craft is recounted by O’Meara, A voice, vol. 2, 17 August. The same and the other Verdun anecdotes are included by Las Cases 5 November 1816 in the published Mémorial 1823 (not present in the ms) – Las Cases makes reference to the letters as if his text and that of the letters are two different sources.

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